Iran and Iraq keep pressure up in Gulf as cease-fire efforts stall. Is Iran rethinking pledge to halt attacks on neutral shipping?

Iranian gunboats shattered a week-long lull in fighting in Gulf waters yesterday with a machine-gun attack on a Norwegian supertanker. The incident came amid growing concern that Gulf War peace efforts are beginning to unravel.

Gulf-based analysts say they are worried about Baghdad's reluctance to rein in its armed forces and begin serious efforts to bring about a cease-fire in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.

Preliminary talks in New York aimed at implementing the United Nations Security Council's peace resolution are stalled over an Iraqi demand that face-to-face talks take place between Iranian and Iraqi delegations before a cease-fire is declared. Iran wants all fighting to stop before direct talks.

In the meantime, Iraq has kept up its military pressure on Iran this week with bombing raids and - according to Tehran - continued chemical-weapons attacks against both military and civilian targets in Iran.

Iran says an Iraqi chemical attack on Tuesday on the Kurdish town of Oshnavieh resulted in 1,700 casualties, with 100 men, women, and children suffering severe injuries.

Iran has asked that a UN team of investigators be sent to the town.

The Iranian charge follows a UN report earlier this week that said the Iraqis were using ``intense and frequent'' chemical attacks against Iranian military positions.

Iraq denies that it launched a chemical attack on Oshnavieh. A military spokesman was quoted by the Iraqi News Agency yesterday as saying: ``The aim of the Iranian regime by these untrue claims is to find a pretext to continue its policy of aggression.''

The spokesman added that Iran ``aims to create obstacles in the way of implementing the Security Council resolution.''

Gulf-based analysts disagree with this assessment. They say Iraq is the side dragging its feet on the cease-fire issue. The Iranians, in a militarily weak position all along the 730-mile Iran-Iraq war front, have emphasized their desire for an immediate cease-fire, the analysts say.

They add that the Iranians want to avoid entering face-to-face talks with the Iraqis while Iraqi troops are holding such an advantage. Such negotiations might begin to look to the Iranian public like a surrender, further complicating efforts in Tehran to prevent a backlash against the government.

It is unclear whether yesterday's attack on the Norwegian tanker was intended as retaliation for earlier Iraqi air raids or as a sign of impatience in Tehran over delays in implementing a cease-fire. The machine-gun attack could also have been a decision made by a commander in the Gulf to intimidate the tanker captain to stop his ship as ordered.

The incident occurred after the 284,502-ton Norwegian tanker, Berge Lord, loaded with Saudi crude, refused an Iranian request to board and search the ship. Shots were fired at the tanker's bridge. No one was hurt and the shooting caused minor damage.

Iran has regularly conducted searches of neutral ships in the Gulf in an effort to ensure that they aren't carrying military or other supplies to Iraq. Such board-and-search operations are recognized as legal under international law, though shooting at neutral ships is not.

The shooting incident is raising questions about whether Iran is rethinking its recent pledge to halt attacks on neutral shipping in the Gulf.

[Reuters reports that the United States ambassador to the UN, Vernon Walters, blames the attack on ``excessive zeal by a local commander'' and said he remained convinced Tehran and Baghdad ``have made the choice for peace.'']

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